Institutes of the Christian Religion (John Calvin)

Institutes of the Christian Religion, Excerpts of Book 2

By John Calvin


[John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminister Press. 1960. Copyright 1960 Westminster John Knox Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission of Westminster John Knox Press.]

All footnotes are taken from McNeill’s 1960 edition. –Site Editor


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12. Supernatural gifts destroyed; natural gifts corrupted; but enough of reason remains to distinguish man from brute beasts.

And, indeed, that common opinion which they have taken from Augustine pleases me: that the natural gifts were corrupted in man through sin, but that his supernatural gifts were stripped from him.[1] For by the latter clause they understand the light of faith as well as righteousness, which would be sufficient to attain heavenly life and eternal bliss. Therefore, withdrawing from the Kingdom of God, he is at the same time deprived of spiritual gifts, with which he had been furnished for the hope of eternal salvation. From this it follows that he is so banished from the Kingdom of God that all qualities belonging to the blessed life of the soul have been extinguished in him, until he recovers them through the grace of regeneration. Among these are faith, love of God, charity toward neighbor, zeal for holiness and for righteousness. All these, since Christ restores them in us, are considered adventitious, and beyond nature: and for this reason we infer that they were taken away. On the other hand, soundness of mind and uprightness of heart were withdrawn at the same time. This is the corruption of the natural gifts. For even though something of understanding and judgment remains as a residue along with the will, yet we shall not call a mind whole and sound that is both weak and plunged into deep darkness. And depravity of the will is all too well known.

Since reason, therefore, by which man distinguishes between good and evil, and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be completely wiped out; but it was partly weakened and partly corrupted, so that its misshapen ruins appear. John speaks in this sense: “The light still shines in the darkness, but the darkness comprehends it not” (John 1:5). In these words both facts are clearly expressed. First, in man’s perverted and degenerate nature some sparks still gleam. These show him to be a rational being, differing from brute beasts, because he is endowed with understanding. Yet, secondly, they show this light choked with dense ignorance, so that it cannot come forth effectively.

[―page 271―]

Similarly the will, because it is inseparable from man’s nature, did not perish, but was so bound to wicked desires that it cannot strive after the right. This is, indeed, a complete definition, but one needing a fuller explanation.

Therefore, so that the order of discussion may proceed according to our original division of man’s soul into understanding and will,[2] let us first of all examine the power of the understanding.

When we so condemn human understanding for its perpetual blindness as to leave it no perception of any object whatever, we not only go against God’s Word, but also run counter to the experience of common sense. For we see implanted in human nature some sort of desire to search out the truth to which man would not at all aspire if he had not already savored it. Human understanding then possesses some power of perception, since it is by nature captivated by love of truth. The lack of this endowment in brute animals proves their nature gross and irrational. Yet this longing for truth, such as it is, languishes before it enters upon its race because it soon falls into vanity. Indeed, man’s mind, because of its dullness, cannot hold to the right path, but wanders through various errors and stumbles repeatedly, as if it were groping in darkness, until it strays away and finally disappears. Thus it betrays how incapable it is of seeking and finding truth.

Then it grievously labors under another sort of vanity: often it cannot discern those things which it ought to exert itself to know. For this reason, in investigating empty and worthless things, it torments itself in its absurd curiosity, while it carelessly pays little or no attention to matters that it should particularly understand. Indeed, it scarcely ever seriously applies itself to the study of them. Secular writers habitually complain of this perversity, yet they are almost all found to have entangled themselves in it. For this reason, Solomon, through the whole of his Ecclesiastes, after recounting all those studies in which men seem to themselves to be very wise, declares them to be vain and trifling (Eccl. 1:2, 14; 2:11; etc.).

13. The power of the understanding with respect to earthly things and the form of the human community

Yet its efforts do not always become so worthless[3] as to have no effect, especially when it turns its attention to things below. On [–page 272–] the contrary, it is intelligent enough to taste something of things above, although it is more careless about investigating these. Nor does it carry on this latter activity with equal skill. For when the mind is borne above the level of the present life, it is especially convinced of its own frailty. Therefore, to perceive more clearly how far the mind can proceed in any matter according to the degree of its ability, we must here set forth a distinction. This, then, is the distinction: that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly. I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.

Of the first class the following ought to be said: since man is by nature a social animal,[4] he tends through natural instinct to foster and preserve society. Consequently, we observe that there exist in all men’s minds universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order. Hence no man is to be found who does not understand that every sort of human organization must be regulated by laws, and who does not comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence arises that unvarying consent of all nations and of individual mortals with regard to laws. For their seeds have, without teacher or lawgiver, been implanted in all men.

I do not dwell upon the dissension and conflicts that immediately spring up. Some, like thieves and robbers, desire to overturn all law and right, to break all legal restraints, to let their lust alone masquerade as law. Others think unjust what some have sanctioned as just (an even commoner fault), and contend that what some have forbidden is praiseworthy. Such persons hate laws not because they do not know them to be good and holy; but raging with headlong lust, they fight against manifest reason. What they approve of in their understanding they hate on account of their lust. Quarrels of this latter sort do not nullify the original [―page 273 ―] conception of equity. For, while men dispute among themselves about individual sections of the law, they agree on the general conception of equity. In this respect the frailty of the human mind is surely proved: even when it seems to follow the way, it limps and staggers. Yet the fact remains that some seed of political order has been implanted in all men. And this is ample proof that in the arrangement of this life no man is without the light of reason.

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22. The evidence of God’s will that man possesses makes him inexcusable but procures for him no right knowledge

There remains the third aspect of spiritual insight,[5] that of knowing the rule for the right conduct of life. This we correctly call the “knowledge of the works of righteousness.” The human mind sometimes seems more acute in this than in higher things. For the apostle testifies: “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do the works of the law, they are a law to themselves . . . and show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their thoughts accuse them among themselves or excuse them before God’s judgment” (Rom. 2:14–15). If the Gentiles by nature have law righteousness engraved upon their minds, we surely cannot say they are utterly blind as to the conduct of life.

There is nothing more common than for a man to be sufficiently instructed in a right standard of conduct by natural law[6] (of which the apostle is here speaking). Let us consider, however, for what purpose men have been endowed with this knowledge of the law. How far it can lead them toward the goal of reason and truth will then immediately appear. This is also clear from Paul’s words, if we note their context. He had just before said that those who sinned in the law are judged through the law; they who sinned without the law perish without the law. Because it [―page 282―] might seem absurd that the Gentiles perish without any preceding judgment, Paul immediately adds that for them conscience stands in place of law; this is sufficient reason for their just condemnation. The purpose of natural law, therefore, is to render man inexcusable. This would not be a bad definition: natural law is that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony. Man is so indulgent toward himself that when he commits evil he readily averts his mind, as much as he can, from the feeling of sin. This is why Plato seems to have been compelled to consider (in his Protagoras) that we sin only out of ignorance.[7] This might have been an appropriate statement if only human hypocrisy had covered up vices with sufficient skill to prevent the mind from being recognized as evil in God's sight. The sinner tries to evade his innate power to judge between good and evil. Still, he is continually drawn back to it, and is not so much as permitted to wink at it without being forced, whether he will or not, at times to open his eyes. It is falsely said, therefore, that man sins out of ignorance alone.

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6. The severity of the law takes away from us all self-deception

But to make the whole matter clearer, let us survey briefly the function and use of what is called the “moral law.”[9] Now so far as I understand it, it consists of three parts.[10]

The first part is this: while it shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness. For man, blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to know and to confess his own feebleness and impurity.

[―page 355―]

If man is not clearly convinced of his own vanity, he is puffed up with insane confidence in his own mental powers, and can never be induced to recognize their slenderness as long as he measures them by a measure of his own choice. But as soon as he begins to compare his powers with the difficulty of the law, he has something to diminish his bravado. For, however remarkable an opinion of his powers he formerly held, he soon feels that they are panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away. Thus man, schooled in the law, sloughs off the arrogance that previously blinded him.

Likewise, he needs to be cured of another disease, that of pride, with which we have said that he is sick. So long as he is permitted to stand upon his own judgment, he passes off hypocrisy as righteousness; pleased with this, he is aroused against God's grace by I know not what counterfeit acts of righteousness. But after he is compelled to weigh his life in the scales of the law, laying aside all that presumption of fictitious righteousness, he discovers that he is a long way from holiness, and is in fact teeming with a multitude of vices, with which he previously thought himself undefiled. So deep and tortuous are the recesses in which the evils of covetousness lurk that they easily deceive man’s sight. The apostle has good reason to say: “I should not have known covetousness, if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7). For if by the law covetousness is not dragged from its lair, it destroys wretched man so secretly that he does not even feel its fatal stab.

7. The punitive function of the law does not diminish its worth

The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both—just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face. For when the capacity to follow righteousness fails him, man must be mired in sins. After the sin forthwith comes the curse. Accordingly, the greater the transgression of which the law holds us guilty, the graver the judgment to which it makes us answerable. The apostle’s statement is relevant here: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). There he notes only its first function, which sinners as yet unregenerate experience. Related to this are these statements: “Law slipped in, to increase the trespass” (Rom. 5:20), and thus it is “the dispensation of death” (II Cor. 3:7) that “brings wrath” (Rom. 4:15), and slays. There is no doubt that the more clearly the conscience is struck with awareness of its sin, the more the iniquity grows. For stubborn disobedience against the Lawgiver is then added to transgression. It remains, [―page 356―] then, to the law to arm God’s wrath for the sinner’s downfall, for of itself the law can only accuse, condemn, and destroy. As Augustine writes: “If the Spirit of grace is absent, the law is present only to accuse and kill us.”[11]

But when we say that, we neither dishonor the law, nor detract at all from its excellence. Surely if our will were completely conformed and composed to obedience to the law, its knowledge alone would suffice to gain salvation. Yet, since our carnal and corrupted nature contends violently against God’s spiritual law and is in no way corrected by its discipline, it follows that the law which had been given for salvation, provided it met with suitable hearers, turns into an occasion for sin and death.[12] For, since all of us are proved to be transgressors, the more clearly it reveals God's righteousness, conversely the more it uncovers our iniquity. The more surely it confirms the reward of life and salvation as dependent upon righteousness, the more certain it renders the destruction of the wicked.

These maxims—far from abusing the law—are of the greatest value in more clearly commending God’s beneficence. Thus it is clear that by our wickedness and depravity we are prevented from enjoying the blessed life set openly before us by the law. Thereby the grace of God, which nourishes us without the support of the law, becomes sweeter, and his mercy, which bestows that grace upon us, becomes more lovely. From this we learn that he never tires in repeatedly benefiting us and in heaping new gifts upon us.

8. The punitive function of the law in its work upon believers and unbelievers

The wickedness and condemnation of us all are sealed by the testimony of the law. Yet this is not done to cause us to fall down in despair or, completely discouraged, to rush headlong over the brink—provided we duly profit by the testimony of the law. It is true that in this way the wicked are terrified, but because of their obstinacy of heart. For the children of God the knowledge of the law should have another purpose. The apostle testifies that we are indeed condemned by the judgment of the law, “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). He teaches the same idea in yet another place: “For God has shut up all men in unbelief,” not that he may destroy all or suffer all to perish, but “that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32). This means [―page 357―] that, dismissing the stupid opinion of their own strength, they come to realize that they stand and are upheld by God’s hand alone; that, naked and empty-handed, they flee to his mercy, repose entirely in it, hide deep within it, and seize upon it alone for righteousness and merit. For God’s mercy is revealed in Christ to all who seek and wait upon it with true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is but the rewarder of perfect righteousness, which all of us lack, and conversely, the severe judge of evil deeds. But in Christ his face shines, full of grace and gentleness, even upon us poor and unworthy sinners.[13]

9. The law, as Augustine states, by accusing moves us to seek grace [title supplied by the editor]

Augustine often speaks of the value of calling upon the grace of His help. For example, he writes to Hilary: “The law bids us, as we try to fulfill its requirements, and become wearied in our weakness under it, to know how to ask the help of grace.” He writes similarly to Asellius: “The usefulness of the law lies in convicting man of his infirmity and moving him to call upon the remedy of grace which is in Christ.” Again, to Innocent of Rome: “The law commands; grace supplies the strength to act.” Again, to Valentinus: “God commands what we cannot do that we may know what we ought to seek from him.” Again: “The law was given to accuse you; that accused you might fear; that fearing you might beg forgiveness; and that you might not presume on your own strength.” Again: “The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.” Afterward he addresses God: “So act, O Lord; so act, O merciful Lord. Command what cannot be fulfilled. Rather, command what can be fulfilled only through thy grace so that, since men are unable to fulfill it through their own strength, every mouth may be stopped, and no one may seem great to himself. Let all be little ones, and let all the world be guilty before God.”[14] But it is silly of me to amass so many testimonies, since that holy man has [―page 358―] written a work specifically on this topic, entitled On the Spirit and the Letter.[15] He does not as expressly describe the second value of the law, either because he knew that it depended upon the first, or because he did not grasp it thoroughly, or because he lacked words to express its correct meaning distinctly and plainly enough.

Yet this first function of the law is exercised also in the reprobate. For, although they do not proceed so far with the children of God as to be renewed and bloom again in the inner man after the abasement of their flesh, but are struck dumb by the first terror and lie in despair, nevertheless, the fact that their consciences are buffeted by such waves serves to show forth the equity of the divine judgment. For the reprobate always freely desire to evade God’s judgment. Now, although that judgment is not yet revealed, so routed are they by the testimony of the law and of conscience, that they betray in themselves what they have deserved.

(The law restrains malefactors and those who are not yet believers, 10–11)

10. The law as protection of the community from unjust men [title supplied by the editor]

The second function of the law is this: at least by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law. But they are restrained, not because their inner mind is stirred or affected, but because, being bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward activity, and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor more righteous before God. Hindered by fright or shame, they dare neither execute what they have conceived in their minds, nor openly breathe forth the rage of their lust. Still, they do not have hearts disposed to fear and obedience toward God. Indeed, the more they restrain themselves, the more strongly are they inflamed; they burn and boil within, and are ready to do anything or burst forth anywhere—but for the fact that this dread of the law hinders them. Not only that—but so wickedly do they also hate the law itself, and curse God the Lawgiver, that if they could, they would most certainly abolish him, for they cannot bear him either when he commands them to do right, or when he takes vengeance on the despisers of his majesty. All who are still unregenerate feel—some more obscurely, some more openly—that they are not drawn [―page 359―] to obey the law voluntarily, but impelled by a violent fear do so against their will and despite their opposition to it.

But this constrained and forced righteousness is necessary for the public community of men,[16] for whose tranquility the Lord herein provided when he took care that everything be not tumultuously confounded. This would happen if everything were permitted to all men. Nay, even for the children of God, before they are called and while they are destitute of the Spirit of sanctification (Rom. 1:4, Vulgate, etc.), so long as they play the wanton in the folly of the flesh, it is profitable for them to undergo this tutelage.[17] While by the dread of divine vengeance they are restrained at least from outward wantonness, with minds yet untamed they progress but slightly for the present, yet become partially broken in by bearing the yoke of righteousness. As a consequence, when they are called, they are not utterly untutored and uninitiated in discipline as if it were something unknown. The apostle seems specially to have alluded to this function of the law when he teaches “that the law is not laid down for the just but for the unjust and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of parents, for manslayers, fornicators, perverts, kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else runs counter to sound doctrine” (I Tim. 1:9–10). He shows in this that the law is like a halter to check the raging and otherwise limitlessly ranging lusts of the flesh.

11. The law a deterrent to those not yet regenerate [title supplied by the editor]

What Paul says elsewhere, that “the law was for the Jews a tutor unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24), may be applied to both functions of the law. There are two kinds of men whom the law leads by its tutelage to Christ.

Of the first kind we have already spoken: because they are too full of their own virtue or of the assurance of their own righteousness, they are not fit to receive Christ’s grace unless they first be emptied. Therefore, through the recognition of their own misery, the law brings them down to humility in order thus to prepare them to seek what previously they did not realize they lacked.

Men of the second kind have need of a bridle to restrain them from so slackening the reins on the lust of the flesh as to fall clean away from all pursuit of righteousness. For where the Spirit of [―page 360―] God does not yet rule, lusts sometimes so boil that there is danger lest they plunge the soul bound over to them into forgetfulness and contempt of God. And such would happen if God did not oppose it with this remedy. Therefore, if he does not immediately regenerate those whom he has destined to inherit his Kingdom, until the time of his visitation, he keeps them safe through the works of the law under fear (cf. I Peter 2:12). This is not that chaste and pure fear such as ought to be in his sons, but a fear useful in teaching them true godliness according to their capacity. We have so many proofs of this matter that no example is needed. For all who have at any time groped about in ignorance of God will admit that it happened to them in such a way that the bridle of the law restrained them in some fear and reverence toward God until, regenerated by the Spirit, they began wholeheartedly to love him.[18]

(Principally it admonishes believers and urges them on in well-doing, 12–13)

12. Even the believers have need of the law

The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.[19] For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 10:16), that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways.

Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it. It is as if some servant, already prepared with all earnestness of heart to commend himself to his master, must search out and observe his master’s ways more carefully in order to conform and accommodate himself to them. And not one of us may escape from this necessity. For no man has heretofore attained to such wisdom as to be unable, from the daily instruction of the law, to make fresh progress toward a purer knowledge of the divine will.

Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path [―page 361―] of transgression. In this way the saints must press on; for, however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness. The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still. Doubtless David was referring to this use when he sang the praises of the law: “The law of the Lord is spotless, converting souls; . . . the righteous acts of the Lord are right, rejoicing hearts; the precept of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes,” etc. (Ps. 18:8–9, Vulgate; 19:7–8, English Version). Likewise: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105), and innumerable other sayings in the same psalm (e.g., Ps. 119:5). These do not contradict Paul’s statements, which show not what use the law serves for the regenerate, but what it can of itself confer upon man. But here the prophet proclaims the great usefulness of the law: the Lord instructs by their reading of it those whom he inwardly instills with a readiness to obey. He lays hold not only of the precepts, but the accompanying promise of grace, which alone sweetens what is bitter. For what would be less lovable than the law if, with importuning and threatening alone, it troubled souls through fear, and distressed them through fright? David especially shows that in the law he apprehended the Mediator, without whom there is no delight or sweetness.

13. Whoever wants to do away with the law entirely for the faithful, understands it falsely

Certain ignorant persons,[20] not understanding this distinction, rashly cast out the whole of Moses, and bid farewell to the two Tables of the Law. For they think it obviously alien to Christians to hold to a doctrine that contains the “dispensation of death” (cf. II Cor. 3:7). Banish this wicked thought from our minds! For Moses has admirably taught that the law, which among sinners can engender nothing but death, ought among the saints to have a better and more excellent use. When about to die, he decreed to the people as follows: “Lay to your hearts all the words which this day I enjoin upon you, that you may command them to your children, and teach them to keep, do, and fulfill all those things [―page 362―] written in the book of this law. For they have not been commanded to you in vain, but for each to live in them” (Deut. 32:46–47, cf. Vulgate). But if no one can deny that a perfect pattern of righteousness stands forth in the law, either we need no rule to live rightly and justly, or it is forbidden to depart from the law. There are not many rules, but one everlasting and unchangeable rule to live by. For this reason we are not to refer solely to one age David’s statement that the life of a righteous man is a continual meditation upon the law (Ps. 1:2), for it is just as applicable to every age, even to the end of the world.

We ought not to be frightened away from the law or to shun its instruction merely because it requires a much stricter moral purity than we shall reach while we bear about with us the prison house of our body. For the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive. In this the law is no less profitable than consistent with our duty. If we fail not in this struggle, it is well. Indeed, this whole life is a race (cf. I Cor. 9:24–26); when its course has been run, the Lord will grant us to attain that goal to which our efforts now press forward from afar.

(Its so-called "abrogation" has reference to the liberation of the conscience, and the discontinuance of the ancient ceremonies, 14–17)

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(The written moral law a statement of the natural law, 1–2)

1. What are the Ten Commandments to us?

Here I think it will not be out of place to introduce the Ten Commandments of the law with a short explanation of them.[21] Thus, the point I have touched upon[22] will also be made clearer: that the public worship that God once prescribed is still in force. Then will come the confirmation of my second point: that the Jews not only learned from the law what the true character of godliness was; but also that, since they saw themselves incapable of observing the law, they were in dread of judgment drawn inevitably though unwillingly to the Mediator. Now in summarizing what is required for the true knowledge of God, we have taught that we cannot conceive him in his greatness without being immediately confronted by his majesty, and so compelled[23] to worship him. In our discussion of the knowledge of ourselves we have set forth this chief point: that, empty of all opinion of our own virtue, and shorn of all assurance of our own righteousness—in fact, broken and crushed by the awareness of our own utter poverty—we may learn genuine humility and self-abasement.[24] Both of these the Lord accomplishes in his law. First, claiming for himself the lawful power to command, he calls us to reverence his divinity, and specifies wherein such reverence lies and consists. Secondly, having published the rule of his righteousness, he reproves us both for our impotence and for our unrighteousness. For our nature, wicked and deformed, is always opposing his uprightness; and our capacity, weak and feeble to do good, lies far from his perfection.

Now that inward law,[25] which we have above described as [―page 368―] written, even engraved, upon the hearts of all, in a sense asserts the very same things that are to be learned from the two Tables. For our conscience does not allow us to sleep a perpetual insensible sleep without being an inner witness and monitor of what we owe God, without holding before us the difference between good and evil and thus accusing us when we fail in our duty. But man is so shrouded in the darkness of errors that he hardly begins to grasp through this natural law what worship is acceptable to God. Surely he is very far removed from a true estimate of it. Besides this, he is so puffed up with haughtiness and ambition, and so blinded by self-love, that he is as yet unable to look upon himself and, as it were, to descend within himself,[26] that he may humble and abase himself and confess his own miserable condition. Accordingly (because it is necessary both for our dullness and for our arrogance), the Lord has provided us with a written law to give us a clearer witness of what was too obscure in the natural law, shake off our listlessness, and strike more vigorously our mind and memory.

2. The inexorableness of the law

Now what is to be learned from the law can be readily understood: that God, as he is our Creator, has toward us by right the place of Father and Lord; for this reason we owe to him glory, reverence, love, and fear; verily, that we have no right to follow the mind’s caprice wherever it impels us, but, dependent upon his will, ought to stand firm in that alone which is pleasing to him; then, that righteousness and uprightness are pleasing to him, but he abominates wickedness; and that, for this reason, unless we would turn away from our Creator in impious ingratitude, we must cherish righteousness all our life. For if only when we prefer his will to our own do we render to him the reverence that is his due, it follows that the only lawful worship of him is the observance of righteousness, holiness, and purity. And we cannot pretend the excuse that we lack ability and, like impoverished debtors, are unable to pay. It is not fitting for us to measure God’s glory according to our ability; for whatever we may be, he remains always like himself: the friend of righteousness, the foe of iniquity. Whatever he requires of us (because he can require only what is right), we must obey out of natural obligation. But what we cannot do is our own fault. If our lust in which sin reigns (cf. Rom. 6:12) so holds us bound that we are not free to obey our Father, there is no reason why we should claim necessity as a defense, for the evil of that necessity is both within us and to be imputed to us.

[1] See, above, sec. 4, notes 17, 18, 21; Augustine, On Nature and Grace, iii.3; xix.21; xx.22 (MPL 44. 249, 256f; tr. NPNF V.122, 127 f.).

[2] I.xv.7, 8.

[3] In the following account Calvin fails to mention the fine arts, which, however, are admired by him. Cf. I.xi.12; Comm. Gen. 4:20, Comm. Harmony Books of Moses, Ex. 20:4; 34:17. The subject is treated by L. Wencelius, L’Esthétique de Calvin, II.v, vi, and by J. Bohatec, Budé und Calvin, pp. 467–471.

[4] Seneca, On Clemency, I.iii.2; On Benefits, VIII.i.7 (LCL Seneca, Moral Essays, I.364 f.; III.458 f.); Lactantius, Divine Institutes, VI.x, xvii (CSEL 19.515, 545; MPL 6.668, 696; tr. ANF VII.173, 182). In Comm. Gen. 2:18, Calvin speaks of the “general principle that man was created to be a social animal.” Cf. Comm. Seneca On Clemency, I.iii (CR V.40).

[5] Cf. the enumeration in II.ii.18.

[6] Cf. II.viii.1–2, 51, and Comm. Rom. 2:14–16; G. Gloede, Theologia naturalis bei Calvin, pp. 178ff; cf. J. Bohatec, Calvins Lehre von Staat und Kirche, pp. 20–35; E. Brunner, Justice and the Social Order (tr. M. Hottinger, p. 233); J. T. McNeill, “Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers,” Journal of Religion XXVI (1946), 168–182.

[7] Plato, Protagoras, 357 (LCL Plato IV.240 f.).

[8] The term “law” for Calvin may mean (1) the whole religion of Moses (II. vii. 1); (2) the special revelation of the moral law to the chosen people i.e., chiefly the Decalogue and Jesus’ summary (II. viii); or (3) various bodies of civil, judicial, and ceremonial statutes (IV. xx. 14–16; Comm. Harmony Four Books of Moses; cf. Decalogue “supplements”). Of these, the moral law, the “true and eternal rule of righteousness” (IV. xx. 15), is most important. It appears in three contexts shown in the three “uses,” below, paragraphs 6–15. For Calvin a positive evaluation of the law allows the “third use” to be the principal one, while for Luther the condemning function is the chief one: cf. Luther, Comm. Gal. 3:19. Calvin regards the condemning function as “accidental” to its true purpose: Comm. II Cor. 3:7; Comm. Rom. 7:10–11. Calvin habitually asserts that the law has validity only as it is related to Christ. Cf. Comm. John 5:38; Acts 13:39; Rom. 10:5; Sermons on Galatians, xxvi (CR L. 603); and Benoit’s note in Institution, II.15.

[9]Officium usumque legis.” The “uses of the law,” which in all preceding editions follow the exposition of the Decalogue, here precede it in a manner appropriate to the covenant setting, and especially to the law’s “principal” use (sec. 12, below), which is that of positive guidance to the Christian. Cf. Luther’s two uses in his Commentary on Galatians 3:19; 4:3 (tr. E. Middleton, pp. 281 ff., 324 f.).

[10] Melanchthon, in Loci communes (1521), holds that it is the proper purpose of the law to make sin manifest and confound the conscience. In the 1535 and later editions, he introduces the three uses of the law here expounded by Calvin. Loci communes (1521), ed. H. Engelland, in the series Melanchthons Werke in Auswahl, ed. R. Stupperich, II.i.122; tr. C. L. Hill, op. cit., p. 215; Loci praecipui theologici (1559), ed. Engelland, op. cit., pp. 321–326, and note 13 on p. 321. Here emphasis is placed upon the second use, which is developed from Rom. 1:18. In the Formula of Concord, the third use is given due recognition (art. vi).

[11] Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, i.2 (MPL 44.917; tr. NPNF V.472).

[12] Ambrose, De Jacobo et vita beata, (MPL 14.637).

[13] The two sentences preceding are found in Calvin’s Instruction et confession de foy (1537); tr. Fuhrmann, Instruction in Faith 11, p. 35. They appear in the Institutes first in 1539.

[14] The following are the passages from Augustine quoted above in this paragraph: Letters. clvii.2.9; cxcvi.2.6; clxxvii.5 (MPL 33.677, 893, 766; tr. FC 20.325; 30.336, 97); On Grace and Free Will, xvi.32 (MPL 44.900; tr. NPNF V.457); On the Spirit and the Letter, xiii.22 (MPL 44.214 f.; tr. NPNF V.92); Psalms, Ps. 70.i.19; 118.xxvii.3 (MPL 36.889; 37.1581; tr. LF Psalms, V.434). “Innocent of Rome” in the text is Pope Innocent I (402–417).

[15] Text in MPL 44.201–246; tr. NPNF V.83–114.

[16] Note the similar phrases in IV.xx.3, and cf. Melanchthon: “publicae pacis causa” (Loci praecipui theologici, ed. Engelland, op. cit., p. 322); cf. also IV.xx.14–16.

[17]Paedagogia,” rendered “pedagogie” in French versions of 1545–1557, but in 1560 “instruction puerile.

[18] Cf. II.viii.51–59.

[19] Melanchthon, Loci communes (1521), ed. Engelland, op. cit., p. 133 (tr. C. L. Hill, p. 229).

[20] This is probably directed not only against the Libertine sect (cf. Contre la secte phantastique des Libertins, CR VII.206 f., 220, 229, 233) but also against John Agricola, who broke from Luther and began the Antinomian Controversy, 1537, denying all Christian obligation to fulfill any part of the Old Testament law. See Werke WA XXXIX.i.342 ff. and HDRE article “Antinomianism.”

[21] The Commandments, with the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, constituted a topic of lay instruction in countless medieval handbooks of religious guidance, such as the English Lay Folk’s Catechism, attributed to John Thoresby, archbishop of York (d. 1373). Pannier cites a separate French booklet on the Commandments, Les fleurs des commandemens (1490, revised 1516): (Institution, I.322, note on p. 197). Their use in Reformation catechisms was begun by Luther (1529), and Calvin had discussed them seriatim in his Instruction et confession de foy (1537); tr. Fuhrmann, Instruction in Faith 8, pp. 24–32.

[22] I.vii.1–2.

[23] I.i.2.

[24] II.i–vi.

[25]Dictat lex illa interior.” Cf., below, in this section, “in lege naturali.” References to natural law in the Institutes are usually, as here, associated with conscience, frequently also with civil positive law and equity, and the Christian’s duties to society. Cf. II.ii.22, where the key Pauline passage for natural law, Rom. 2:14–15, is employed: see also II.vii.3–4; II.viii.1–2, 53; III.xix.15–16; IV.x.3; IV.xx.11 (“natural equity”); IV.xx.15 (the rule of love); IV.xx.16 (“the moral law...a testimony of natural law”). Calvin’s view of the Commandments as a divinely authorized text expressing and clarifying the natural law engraved on all hearts is the traditional one. Lactantius quotes in full Cicero’s important paragraph, in De republica III. xxii, on the law of right reason agreeing with nature, which God has given to all men, and asks what Christian could have set forth so meaningfully the law of God: Divine Institutes, VI.viii (CSEL 19.508 f.; MPL 6.660 f.; tr. ANF VII.171). Cf. Augustine, Confessions II.iv.9 (MPL 32. 678; tr. LCC VII. 54). Aquinas treats natural law with some fullness, e.g., in Summa Theol. Ia IIae, questions xci. 1–3; xciv; c. 1–5, where the principles of the Decalogue are identified with those of natural reason. The association of natural law with the golden rule of Matt. 7:12 is also common: see Gratian, Decretum, I.i (Friedberg I.2). Some references to this background are given in J. T. McNeill’s article “Natural Law in the Thought of Luther” in Church History X (1941), 211–227; for Calvin, see also “Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers,” Journal of Religion XXVI (1946), 168–182, and literature there cited. Notable references in Calvin’s commentaries and sermons are: Comm. Rom. 2:14–15; Sermons on Deuteronomy cxix (on Deut. 19:14–15) (CR XXVII. 568); Sermons on Job, ci, on Job 28:1–9 (CR XXXIV: 503 ff.); Comm. Harmony Four Books of Moses, “Praefatio in legem” (CR XXIV. 209–260). Here again the Commandments are seen as a specially accommodated restatement of the law of nature for the chosen people, and the entire body of “Mosaic” legislation is classified under the ten laws.

[26] Cf. I.i.2, note 6. This passage succinctly presents Calvin’s view of the work of the law and of conscience in conversion.

Original Author Sort: 
Calvin, John